My first memory of Watership Down was seeing it on my brother’s bookshelf. The cover of that particular edition had a drawing of an ornate compass, one complete with ENE and SSW and so on. With the 16 points it looked much like the paddle wheel of a river steamboat. This to me made sense because with a title such as Watership Down I was sure it was about a boat sinking. Which is why the rabbits that were also on the cover made no sense to me.
Eventually I chose to not judge this particular book by it’s cover and actually read it, probably sometime during Junior High. To say i loved it would be an understatement, but I also can’t say what about it particularly that I loved because there was so many different elements. It’s an epic tale of survival and war, and yet it’s a personal story about a group of individuals brought together. It is full of allegory and parables, containing several stand alone stories that showed off just how creative Richard Adams, the author, was. It had it’s own made up language and yet spoke in accessible ways, making it easy to fall into the story immediately, And it had talking rabbits! How cool is that?
This was a book that I could put down, but not for long. There was a time I was rereading it once a year, and I was so wrapped up in it that during college I was serious when I told a friend that someday i wanted to create a live action version, possibly a film, probably a play. (This was during my “I’m an artiste!” phase so the idea of humans playing rabbits with human characteristics made perfect sense to me.) Every time I read the book I took more and more from it, and it began to influence who i was in ways I wasn’t even aware of, specifically in the type of writer I became.
I try to make my longer fiction cyclical, so that when the ending comes we’re somewhere near where we started, but also several miles further along. A perfect example is my novel Chasing Ghosts. The novel opens and closes with the main character in Penn Station waiting for the train. However the differences are enormous. At the beginning he is alone, running away, trying one last attempt to salvage what is left of his old dark life and convinced it isn’t going to work. At the end he is with his lover, and they are leaving to start a new life together in the sun. I never knew why it was important for me to write like this; mostly I told myself it was to show that the story was definitively over. Then a couple of years later I went and reread Watership Down, probably for the 15th time at this point.
The first line in the novel? “The primroses were over.”
The last line? “…where the primroses were beginning to bloom.”
In twenty something years of reading this book I had never made the connection. I certainly can’t speak for what his intention might have been, and the image of plants dying at the beginning – when the original warren was about to collapse – and blooming at the end – when the new warren has grown prosperous and happy – speaks volumes as a metaphor for the novel as well. But for me it was something that slipped into my head and never left. I judge other books by this same yardstick as well as my own, and feel subconsciously that I enjoy books more that have this wrap than those who don’t. And I know I’m not the only author who has been influenced by this book. Stephen King cites it several times in his own epic The Stand.
I’ve never read anything else by Richard Adams; he’s only written a few other novels and frankly I’m afraid that no matter how good any of them are I will unfairly hold them up against Watership Down. Ultimately that is a disservice to me and what I might be enjoying, not to mention to his estate and the few extra pounds in royalties they’re missing out on. But I also think the reason certain things touch us is because of when they touch us, reaching us during a time in our lives where we are more open to influence and susceptible to suggestion.
Not to be late to the bandwagon, but 2016 has been a shit year for celebrities dying. Richard Adams may be no celebrity, but as I look back at the list of people lost this year (and let’s face it it’s pretty hard to remember them all) as much joy and pleasure and entertainment and great memories many of them have brought into my life, none have been more important in not just shaping what I have become as I’ve grown up, but even how I go about doing it.
“My heart has joined the Thousand, because my friend stopped running today.”
I could tell you what that means, specifically what the Thousand represents, but I’d rather you read the book.
R.I.P. Richard Adams.